At SoulFire, Barbecue And Soul Music Collide

Walk into SoulFire on Harvard Ave., and you’ll feel like you are being transported to Memphis in the 1960s. The smell of authentic, slow-smoked barbecue wafts from the kitchen as classic soul music plays from the restaurant’s speakers. Red walls are filled with black-and-white photographs of iconic soul musicians. Wooden tables are decorated with red-checkered tablecloths, large rolls of napkins, and five homemade sauces. A 12-seat bar is decked out with soul album covers embedded on its surface. And you can’t miss the massive hand-painted mural of the “Tower of Power” soul band right behind the register.

The music is as much an intricate part of SoulFire as its southern-style barbecue. The local barbecue joint has been a staple in Allston, Mass. for nearly 10 years, and has amassed a playlist containing over 3,400 songs of soul music that continually plays through the restaurant’s speakers. SoulFire provides customers with savory barbecue flavors from the Carolinas to Texas, and is serious when it comes to smoked meat—the kitchen boasts a 1,000-pound capacity smoker. The restaurant has also been featured on Food Network’s Meat and Potatoes, and opened a second location on Huntington Ave. in Boston three years ago.

“We offer everything you can get down South, and we want to keep it as authentic as we can,” Jason Tremblay, SoulFire’s pitmaster, said.

Over 10 years ago, SoulFire was merely an idea to Wyeth Lynch. The Williams College graduate had been working in the technology market research field before realizing he didn’t like his typical 9 to 5-office job. His real passion was for barbecue—and he spontaneously decided to open his own restaurant. With a love of cooking and a lifelong passion for soul music, SoulFire was born. But Lynch quickly realized that he needed a right-hand man, and was introduced to Tremblay nine years ago.

“I do the food and he does the soul,” Tremblay said jokingly.

Tremblay is responsible for many of the daily operations of the barbecue joint. But his main task as pitmaster is to smoke the meat—an intricate process that takes anywhere from 12 to 14 hours to complete. He keeps the smoker fired up with hickory wood and filled with meats smoked in a variety of styles.

On a typical day, Tremblay will receive a shipment of 36 racks of baby back ribs and 36 racks of spare ribs. Each afternoon, he puts his own homemade salt and pepper dry rub on the ribs before letting them sit out overnight. The next morning, he will put them in the smoker to cook for three-and-a-half to four hours at exactly 240 degrees, taking the ribs out to cool just before the first wave of customers rolls into the restaurant around lunchtime.

Texas-style beef brisket and North Carolina-style pulled-pork—the two remaining meats of the barbecue trifecta—are SoulFire’s most popular options and require a slightly different slow-cooking process each day. Tremblay puts the pulled-pork in the smoker at 3 p.m. each day, and cooks the meat overnight until 8 a.m. the next morning. The brisket follows a similar path, but is put in at 8 p.m. at a lower temperature, and is smoked together with the brisket until Tremblay arrives the next morning.

“I’m not a chef of pretty foods,” he said. “I smoke big amounts of meat.”

Although the process of smoking the meat has relatively stayed the same, barbecue can pose some unforeseeable challenges. Tremblay must constantly monitor the temperatures inside and outside of the restaurant, as exterior temperatures can alter the cooking time of the meat. Tremblay is consistently slow-cooking meat every day, and after nine years of experience, he has the process nailed down to a science. SoulFire rarely runs out of meat, and if it does, customers are out of luck. The meticulous 12-14 hour smoking process can’t be replicated.

All of the meats are accompanied by SoulFire’s five signature sauces on the side, each representing traditional sauces from various regions across the country. “Pitboss” is sweet upfront, with a peppery finish, and goes well with most menu options. “SoulFire” is designed to go on brisket with a Kansas City-style tomato base and a hint of vinegar and pepper. SoulFire’s “Fiery” sauce is based on a traditional South Carolina mustard sauce, and “N.C. Sauce” is a North Carolina cider vinegar and pepper sauce. Tremblay said that he smokes meat that has great flavor and doesn’t need sauce, but the variety of sauces are what make barbecue, barbecue.

One of SoulFire’s most popular menu items is a concoction known as the “Spaghetti Western,” which was created accidentally. The Spaghetti Western includes one scoop of SoulFire’s signature mac ’n cheese, one scoop of chili, and another scoop of mac ’n cheese with barbecue potato chips sprinkled on the top.

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“People would come in here hungover and start throwing stuff in a bowl,” Tremblay said. “We thought it made sense and decided to start selling it, and people have loved it. It’s like a full meal. If you eat it in the winter, it’s warm, spicy, and awesome.”

As a southern-style barbecue joint, SoulFire sticks with what it knows best. The Carolina pulled-pork is its most popular option, Tremblay said, but SoulFire also sells hundreds of pounds of fried chicken each week. Other sides such as coleslaw, baked beans, and collard greens accompany the massive plates of meat.

It’s Monday afternoon at SoulFire, and customers are starting to line up for the lunchtime rush. Harvard Ave. is a bustling with commotion this time of day, and more patrons are filing through the restaurant’s doors for take-out and large catering orders. A group of Boston University students starts to devour a large rack of baby back ribs at the bar. Another pair of businessmen decked out in suits is sitting in near the window, deciding which barbecue sauce to slab on top of their pulled-pork sandwiches.

But a man in flip-flops is standing near the kitchen, staring at the large Tower of Power mural behind the register. He remains there for a few moments, admiring the mural as a song by The Temptations starts to play softly in the background. All of a sudden the man snaps back into reality as a fresh platter of smoked brisket is brought out from the kitchen.

Moments like this are what Tremblay describes as quintessential to the SoulFire experience. Some barbecue aficionados walk into the Allston restaurant craving a taste of Kansas City or North Carolina. But others that know music—real soul music—are captivated by the restaurant’s ambiance.

“At the end of the day, we’re all about the soul.”

 

Featured Images by Julia Hopkins / Heights Staff

About Bennet Johnson 96 Articles
Bennet Johnson was the Metro Editor for The Heights in 2015 and Business Manager in 2016. You can probably still find him wandering around Boston, wearing his 'Minnesota Nice' T-shirt. Follow him on Twitter @bennet_15.